Continuing my journey to better fitness via inspirational books, I have just finished this smashing book, and cannot wait to read more from this talented writer (and ace runner).
In 2011, with admirable courage and a great sense of adventure Mr. Finn, his gutsy wife and their 3 little children move to live in Iten, the mecca of Kenyan running, and the story of the family’s daily life is as captivating as the story of Mr. Finn’s training alongside some of the best runners on the planet.
(And yeah, agreed, I’m definitely late to this particular book. Goodness knows how I missed it all these years…)
With humour, compassion and a seeming ability to stay calm and unruffled whatever Iten throws at him, Mr. Finn makes friends with Kenyan runners and starts training with them, culminating in the dramatic Lewa marathon, run in a wildlife conservancy. (Helicopters are on hand to drive off any prowling lions).
As I turned the final pages of this engaging book, I felt both inspired by Mr. Finn’s uplifting story, but also sad at leaving behind the motley crew of runners in Iten, with whom the author lives and trains and expands his running horizons. The book is peopled by a brilliant cast of characters, some of them world-class athletes, and alongside the Finn family, we discover a community of kindness, a razor-sharp focus on the task in hand, often dodgy hotels, definitely stretchable time and above all, a simple unpretentious way of life.
It is great fun to explore Iten and the surrounding countryside with Mr. Finn and the Kenyan runners, who regularly meet up in the pre-dawn darkness, in a haphazard kind of way, and then set off on training runs along rough trails and through the countryside. One of the delights of the book is meeting these talented yet very simple, uncomplicated runners. They run, they rest a lot, they eat, then they run again. That is their life and they all seem remarkably content and uncomplicated in their approach. They are very focused but they don’t seem to overthink things.
“Another reason Kenyans may be mentally tough is that they seem to spend less time analysing while they’re running. If you ask a Kenyan runner what was happening in his head during a race, he will usually say something as simple as “I felt good, so I ran faster” or “I felt tired, so I stopped”. A Western runner, in contrast, will be able to tell you exactly what his thoughts were at each mile, what his time splits were, how his tactics changed during the race. Many of the Kenyan runners I meet tell me they don’t wear a watch when they’re racing, that they prefer to run on feeling. For most Western runners, this would be a dangerous approach. It would be like going on a long car journey and switching off the speedometer and petrol gauge.”
I almost winced when I read this.
As a very late-in-life runner (and a very slow runner to boot) on occasions I may have been heard to say that “I get some of my best ideas for articles or blog posts while I’m running”, feeding right into the slightly pretentious how-running-fuels-the creative-process narrative.
Perhaps the Kenyan approach is better. More zen. Less over-thinking things.
The author sets out on his journey to Iten with the hope of discovering just what it is that makes the Kenyans such superlative runners, and this book is his journey of discovery.
Is it the food? The altitude? Or a childhood of running to school, often barefoot? Is it the desire to escape tough, often poor lives? Mr. Finn asks questions of runners and trainers and physios as he seeks to find the answer.
By the end of the book, as he is preparing to run the Lewa marathon with the running group he has put together, the author looks back on his quest:
“For six months I’ve been piecing together the puzzle of why Kenyans are such good runners. In the end there was no elixir, no running gene, no training secret that you could neatly package up and present with flashing lights and fireworks. Nothing that Nike could replicate and market as the latest running fad. No, it was too complex, yet too simple, for that. It was everything, and nothing. I list them, the secrets, in my head. The tough, active childhood, the barefoot running, the altitude, the diet, the role models, the simple approach to training, the running camps, the focus and dedication, the desire to succeed, to change their lives, the expectation that they can win, the mental toughness, the lack of alternatives, the abundance of trails to train on, the time spent resting, the running to school, the all pervading running culture, the reverence for running.”
When the family leaves Iten, you feel nostalgic with them, as they say goodbye to friends and neighbours. The Lewa marathon is told in gripping detail, and even if you are not a runner, you cannot help but be swept along by the dramatic end to a truly inspiring book.
And you absolutely do not have to be runner to enjoy this book about exploring Africa differently.
Before I go: I mentioned in the opening sentence of this review that I’ve been reading other inspirational books. Here’s a brief recap of recent books:
On mountaineering – https://christinesbookreviews.com/mountains-of-the-mind-by-robert-macfarlane/
On general fitness – https://christinesbookreviews.com/older-faster-stronger-by-margaret-webb/
There are many more “uplifting” books on my list, but these are 3 special favourites. Along with this current book, of course.